Read the Romanian version of this story on Speologie.org. Photos by Radu Pop - click here to view the whole set.
Of course I was supposed to make a video with this but unfortunately I forgot my camera at home… All this after I passionately prepared for the trip (getting an extra battery from a friend, buying lots of Duracell batteries for a video led lamp, etc.).
But I assume there were greater forces that decided we weren’t supposed to shoot much during this adventure. That’s because our photographer accidentally dropped his professional camera into a water pool (second day into the cave). I may sound new agey but I acknowledged these as clear signs telling us we should focus on exploring (and getting out safe) and less on shooting.
However, Ovidiu Pop had this compact cam - Canon PowerShot D20 - which allowed us to "steal" some images after all. Since the cam has no manual mode (or maybe we just weren’t able to access it) we struggled to get the images right. Video mode is quite poor in low light so I’m not sure it’s worth doing an edit with the short material that I shot.
The news people did use some of the footage in their report though. Yup - we hit the national evening news at TVR with this expedition. Being the deepest in Romania, this cave got the attention of the TV producers.
That’s what Andrei Biro (the reporter and camera operator) said: "If my bosses hear something like the biggest, the deepest, the most whatever then they allow me to go out in the field and shoot it." And he did a fine job - a dedicated journalist and a great comrade who also helped us get back from the mountain as our car got buried by snowfall while we were caving for 10 days.
This cave is located in Varasoaia Mountain (Padis Plateau, Bihor County). There are many holes here and the boys gave them simple names: V1 (Varasoaia 1), V2, etc. V5 proved to be the jackpot. For many years, cavers worked on the first few hundred meters for "penetration" (digging out mud, rocks, mini blasting to enlarge the tunnel, etc.)
- How big is the cave?
- Ovidiu Pop: "This is a huge system. It can be 100 km long. There are tons of unexplored passages."
There are several rivers in the cave and just one of them is currently being explored. Only 20 something km are mapped.
Mihai Badescu: "Dude, in caving you can’t say you’re done unless you hit your head against the rock at the dead end of the tunnel. You gotta explore every nook and corner. As you saw, you climb this ugly muddy slope just to find a beautiful room full of crystals with another tunnel that takes you to a suspended lake."
The first part is very narrow and uncomfortable. I wouldn't have gone through those tight passages if I hadn’t seen the veterans leading. It’s just too tight and you get scared at the thought of getting stuck.
The funny thing is that after about 6 hours of mostly crawling (and some abseils trough small vertical wells - 12 / 15 meters each), a "pipe" delivers you right in the ceiling of a giant space (Poli Matos) where you can easily fit some 4 storey apartment buildings and a suburb. It must have
been a great joy at exploration to find this massive hall after the grueling hours through wet muddy pipes. From up there you abseil and that’s your first bivouac.
Frequent discussion topics in bivouacs: women, spiritual enlightenment, continency (is that the word?) and multiple orgasms for men, Geto-Dacians history (our ancestors), women, yoga, women and so on.
Shitting must be accomplished on active tunnels (active = where a river flows) and ass wiping is done just as well with "Active" (a personal hygiene product that can be found in caves only). Since my gloves got ripped from all the abseils, my hands were muddy most of the times but, dude, my ass was clean!
Anyway, taking a shit was an adventure in itself because the active wasn’t always close to the bivouac. And then you had to postpone shitting to the next day when you went exploring (if you had to go during the night… you were basically in deep shit).
Clothes: all polyester. Underwear as well. Polyester is light and it dries fast even when you wear it. Power stretch base layer, tights, fleece, fleece overall, and cordura overall shell (the standard caving uniform). I also had a woollen west. The only place where I was cold during the night was in the 3rd bivouac but that was because of the strong draught (a good sign the tunnel is worth exploring when it "breathes" - it means there’s another exit somewhere).
Knee protection is essential (I had the ones I use for MTB) not just for the crawling sectors but for those unexpected falls you’re bound to take. I did fall a few times and I would have crushed my knees if I hadn't had the knee pads underneath the cordura shell.
It takes 3 days to get to the unexplored end of the cave. Now that we went further, I can say it takes you 3.5 days.
During day two, you get naked and take your wet suit for a few hours of walking through a river. Some wet-suits are already there from previous expeditions - therefore they’re wet and cold - and then you hear cavers making the funniest sounds: "aaaahhhh iiiiii uuuuuu". After walking through the river - normally waist deep, this time the water was low but I still managed to get my balls wet - we unzip our wet suits and we are stupefied by the small size of our dicks. A phenomenon scientists have yet to explain.
After bivouac 2 (second night slept in the cave) you abseil into the dry part of a canyon and soon enough you reach the lowest point of the cave (approx minus 700 m) - where you can find a 70 m high waterfall. Pretty sweet for an underground river. Then you walk uphill for a few hours through Titans Road - basically a canyon with 100+ m high walls where the river shows up once in a while. The cairns help you to not get lost in this chaotic bouldery landscape.
A relief in exploration is the absence of the heavy banana (that’s how cavers call their backpacks). You basically set foot where no man has stepped before but, after 3 days roaming deep into the cave, the emotion is not as strong. It just doesn't make much difference that no man has been around the corner. I was rather animated by finding another exit or some cool formations (crystals, cool stalagmites and such).
Speaking of formations - at 3.5 days from the surface you can find the Angels’ Hall with beautiful coral-like aragonites. These are some anti gravitational formations - some clusters are 50 cm large and they look like mistletoe bushes hanging from the roof of the cave. They form through capillarity (hence defying gravity) and their presence is a sign the environment was isotrope for many thousands or hundreds of thousand of years (humidity, pressure and temperature have stayed pretty much the same here). They look like crystals and are either white or colored in yellowish green, pink and orange. Some were mingled with what we call crystalictites (which don’t have the crystal aspect but they rather look like worms).
Just a bit further away from Angels’ we found a suspended lake from which a small rivers flows. Perhaps somewhere beneath the surface are the springs which feed it - this is a dead end for us - we couldn't find any other possibility of going deeper. The hall is amazing though and has a "super old" feeling to it. The lake has a gravel bank on the other side which indicates its past level.
After climbing a glazed chimney, Mitza Badescu found a beautifully adorned passage. It’s a story-like tunnel with terraced pools of water one of which houses 3 crystal clusters each big as a child’s fist. The tunnel ends with a 25 m vertical well that has a 2 meter deep pool of water at the bottom. This is another dead end but the vertical hollow looks promising - if only we can find another way up there (without having to drill the wall for artificial climbing). Mihai equipped the access here with ropes so if you wanna visit - you don’t have to climb the glazed chimney. :-)
Behind us came the cartographers (Radu & Ovidiu). They had a lasermeter, a compass and a tool that indicates the steepness of the terrain.
Ovi was the lead and he’d find a boulder or a wall which he then flooded with light from his headlamp. Radu was somewhere behind and he’d point a laser beam to that spot illuminated by Ovi. He read the distance indicated by the lasermeter from his position to Ovi’s position. Then he’d beam left, right and up. Also Radu read the cardinal orientation (e.g. 245 degrees) and the angle of the slope. All these measurements were being written down by Ovi in his notebook.
After recording all these data, Ovi would place a small aluminum plate with a number on it - e.g. V5 125 (mapping visa no. 125). From that point they’d do the same to another point which is marked as V5 126, etc. Throughout the cave you can see these plates so you know you’re on the right way.
In addition to this, Ovi was drawing each sector between visas (the map itself). You gotta do this while you’re there - otherwise you can’ remember all the details. Apart from the above perspective, Ovi drew the profile section and noted observations.
The data from the notebook is being compiled in a software that renders the 3D map of the cave. This maps (seen on a computer display) shows just the direction of the cave (not the volume). If properly projected onto the map of the surface terrain, it can give us clues about new possible entry points (bottom of sinkholes/dolines, gorges, karstic springs, etc)
Anyway, the map is not of much help for orienteering while in the cave. You gotta be there with someone who knows the route in and out. The passageway system is very complex and chaotic and you can’t find much use in the map even if you are an expert. Not to mention that you cannot be rescued if you get injured (like a broken leg or broken back - which is not hard to do…)
We charted 1.6 km of new tunnels in this trip and there’s more on a dry diaclase but we need extra ropes to continue deeper (abseils). Maybe next time.
Since the cave is very deep, the exploring is more and more difficult. That’s why finding another entry would be beneficial and it would speed up the process. Otherwise it’ll take years or tens of years (it was discovered in the 80s and there’s still work to be done) because there are few teams willing to come down here. The logistic is hard and everything is at your own expense (food, gear, gas).
It all very much resembles the ascension of a Himalayan mountain: you need to setup up camps along the way with food, sleeping bags and other supplies. Then you make a push for the summit. The thing is… we don’t know which one is the summit. Passages may very well be dead ends and then you have to go back and explore another tunnel.
There were supplies from the previous expeditions in each bivouac - we also left our own (canned food and ropes mostly). So if we come back for a short trip we might not have to carry so much food… In theory at least. In Poli Matos, we ate canned beans which expired in 2009 - this tells you something about how often (read seldom) cavers come here. The guys I went with had been here before in 2010.
Same goes for sleeping bags and mats - you leave them in the cave. A sacrifice you make for the sake of exploration. You wouldn't wanna be carrying them next time anyway.
In order to speed up the exploration you’d need a support team to carry food and supplies to the most advanced bivouacs. From there, the explorers can focus on charting and exploring without the hassle of establishing bivouacs. Of course, you need a budget for that - hello, sponsors! are you receiving this?!
Setting aside the caving and the sporty aspect of the whole shebang, I was happy to meet Ovidiu Pop. Homeopathic M.D. and yogi, at 47 years old he’s more active than many young dudes. Badescu says he’s the greatest cave explorer in Romania today. Hard working cartographer, he’s always composed and calm no matter how hard shit hits the fan. The guy is also a mountain biker, does ice climbing, alpinism and rock climbing.
A spiritual leader - he taught us to be centered within ourselves and not in external things - not to let yourself at the mercy of your environment - which will inevitably change but if you’re centered you’ll be fine.
He also said that "Manifestation is an expression of necessity" and that "Absolute freedom is to accept necessity and learn from it". In other words, whatever happens to you, bad shit especially, is necessary for you in order to learn something and to evolve spiritually. So it’s your duty to seek constructive meaning in whatever it is that you’re going through.
"It’s better to be authentic than reasonable" - be unapologetic about your true nature and act freely. You’ll feel better about yourself and people will have the chance to meet the real you (congruent self), not the reasonable persona that you put on as a mask to comply to what society expects of you.
Am I gonna return to this cave?
I’m not sure. Maybe for a photo & video trip to be able to get some cool shots but to be honest I’m not that eager to go exploring again.
I don’t like to risk my skin as I used to do when I was younger - it just doesn’t make sense to me anymore - not for a cave at least. We were on this vertical chimney with loose rocks that were almost falling on us - death was just around the corner. I ran away from there to safer places.
Radu and Ovi had no problems being there - they went on until they hit an impenetrable spot. I guess that’s why they are the real cavers and I’m not. Those loose rocks and the upward hollow might be the bottom of a doline at the surface.
My challenge was to keep calm and not over anticipate what was going to happen. I managed to do that just for a little while. It’s hard. Badescu: "The mind is a tool. You control it."
The trip made me step out of my comfort zone (both physically and mentally) which makes me appreciate the simple things even more - like taking a bath or sleeping in a warm bed. It’s a big deal to be healthy and to live a normal life "at the surface". :)
- Ovidiu Pop (leader, cartographer)
- Radu Pop (photographer and hard core explorer of tight passages; an altruistic dude who always brought water for tea and soup in the bivouacs)
- Mihai Badedscu (lead climber - he opened the hardest vertical passages then he equiped those passages with ropes for the rest of the team)
- Constantin Gabor (me, apprentice - casual caver)
The roads are closed there in the winter so there was basically no one around except these two men who kept watch at the cabin.
Also of great help was Andrei Biro - the TVR journalist who came there three times (as close as his car could get through the big snow). He brought us back to safety in Cluj with the TVR car. Cheers for that, Andrei!
That’s about it!
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